Last month we ran an excerpt from Baylor Professor Rodney Stark’s new book, How the West Won: The Neglected Story of the Triumph of Modernity, and today we run one more, with permission of ISI Books. Our excerpt last month contended that the declineof Rome was an advance for Western civilization because decentralization led to more innovation. Today’s excerpt examines the effects of twin catastrophes, the Black Death and the Little Ice Age. —Marvin Olasky
Chapter 7: Climate, Plague, and Social Change
If historians have been rather inattentive to matters of geography, they have been even less attuned to the implications of climate and disease. Of course, the obvious effects of climate—that Eskimos use sleds and Bedouins do not—have always been noted. What has been given little attention are significant climatic changes. In part this is because until Hubert Lamb wrote about them in 1965, it was not widely recognized that there had been any substantial climatic changes since the end of the Ice Age, twenty thousand years ago, despite the fact that the history of medieval Europe hinges on two major shifts in climate.By the same token, although the conquest of many chronic diseases is regarded as an essential feature of the rise of modernity, historians have largely ignored epidemics, which have had far more dramatic effects on the course of history. Incredibly, generations of historians dismissed the death of nearly half the world’s population from the Black Death (1346–1351) as of little significance compared with, say, the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). Serious historical studies of the Black Death did not begin until well into the twentieth century, and even now these studies are pursued as an isolated subject matter.
For example, in his well-received Civilization: A New History of the Western World (2006), Roger Osborne devoted one sentence to the Black Death and none to plagues; he gave two sentences to the Ice Age and made no mention of more recent climate changes. In his huge and celebrated Europe: A History (1996), Norman Davies gave nearly three pages (out of 1,365) to the Black Death, but like so many other historians, he treated it as a self-contained event, writing only two paragraphs on any social effects. Davies also gave one page to climate, but mostly to discredit it as being of historical significance.
Breaking with tradition, this chapter is focused on two extraordinary developments in the middle of the fourteenth century: the Black Death and the so-called Little Ice Age, when the weather turned bitterly cold. Ironically, these twin catastrophes seem to have made several important positive contributions to the rise of modernity.
Amid the bitter contemporary conflicts over whether the climate is getting warmer, and if so why, the most basic fact about earth’s climate has been nearly forgotten: that warming and cooling trends are quite common. Because substantial changes in the climate occur very slowly, people tend to regard their current climatic conditions as normal. Not so. For example, beginning sometime in the eighth century, the earth began to heat up, producing what now is known as the Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from about 800 to about 1250. As temperatures rose, the growing period lengthened all across northern Europe; the Arctic ice pack receded, making it much safer to sail in the North Atlantic; and it became possible to farm successfully as far north as Greenland. Then temperatures began to drop until early in the fourteenth century, when the Little Ice Age dawned; this era of very cold winters and short summers lasted until about 1850. During the coldest decades of the Little Ice Age, in the seventeenth century, the Baltic Sea froze over, making possible sleigh rides from Poland to Sweden; the Thames River froze in London, as did all the Atlantic harbors in Europe.
To make matters more confusing, both eras saw considerable variation from year to year—unusually cold years during the Medieval Warm Period and unusually warm years during the Little Ice Age. In fact, such abnormal conditions could sometimes last for a decade. But the important point is that both eras had substantial influence on the course of history.
The question arises, how do we know that these climatic periods took place? Until recent times our only sources were literary—as when a medieval diarist noted that “this was a year without summer” or an English pastor wrote to a friend about ice skating on the Thames. Then came archaeological evidence, such as analysis of skeletons showing how the Viking colony on Greenland slowly died out from malnutrition. But we now have a far more general, accurate, and sensitive database on the climate obtained from tree rings and from ice cores drilled in glaciers in many parts of the earth. Ice cores have annual layers similar to tree rings. Chemical and isotopic analyses of ice cores reveal many aspects of climate, including temperature ranges, ocean volume, precipitation, chemistry of the lower atmosphere, volcanic eruptions, solar variability, and even the prevalence of forest fires. Because of the great depth of some glaciers, it has been possible to reconstruct the climate for a period stretching back several hundred thousand years. Of course, a recent scandal concerned the falsification of these data on behalf of the man-made global warming thesis, a fraud that involved minimizing the warmth of the Medieval Warm Period and maximizing the temperatures of the Little Ice Age to create the so-called hockey stick graph of temperatures for the past millennium. Now that this fraud has been detected, there can be no doubt that such warm and cold periods occurred and that they greatly influenced human events.
The Medieval Warm Period
No one benefited more from the warm conditions that prevailed from about 800 to about 1250 than did the Vikings. The lengthening growing season in Scandinavia greatly increased crop yields, and this, in turn, fed a larger population. The newly benign climate also enabled the Vikings to undertake voyages of discovery and settlement that had been impossible in colder times. The receding ice pack, the reduced prevalence of icebergs, and the reduction in the number and severity of storms at sea favored Viking voyaging across the North Atlantic.
First came the discovery and settlement of Iceland. The Vikings initially reached Iceland by accident, after getting lost while sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands. Next, a boatload of Swedes accidentally reached the island and stayed for the winter. The first Viking to intentionally sail there, in the 860s, was Flóki Vilgerðarson, who stayed only one winter and named the island Iceland after seeing drift ice in the fjords. The first settler of Iceland was Ingólfr Arnarson, a Norwegian chieftain who arrived with his family in 874. Within the next sixty years all the land on Iceland had been claimed by settlers and a government had been established. The first Christian bishop of Iceland was consecrated in 1056.
Although several Vikings had sailed to Greenland soon after the initial settlement in Iceland, it was not until 982 that someone settled in Greenland. The first settler was a Norwegian under a three-year exile from Iceland for killing several men. When his period of exile had passed, Eric the Red recruited settlers from Iceland to colonize the southern coast of Greenland, an area then quite suitable for farming. Trade with Scandinavia flourished—in 1075 a Greenlander shipped a live polar bear as a gift to King Ulfsson of Denmark. (The coat of arms of the Danish royal family still includes a depiction of a polar bear.) Even at its peak, however, the Viking population of Greenland was probably no more than three or four thousand.
Finally came Vinland. Although this settlement is recorded in several Norse sagas, as well as in Adam of Breman’s eleventh-century Description of the Northern Island, for centuries historians dismissed the claim that Leif Eriksson had sailed his knarr from Greenland to the north coast of America as pure mythology. Then, in 1914, William A. Munn, after close study of the sources, proposed that the Vikings had landed and made their base at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland. No respectable scholar took him seriously. But in 1960 Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad found extensive remains of a tenth-century Viking village at precisely the spot Munn had proposed. It is now accepted that this was the main Viking settlement in North America and that the Vikings had camped in many other coastal sites. None of this could have happened except for the Medieval Warm Period.
Meanwhile, it was golden days in Europe as well. Wine grapes grew so plentifully in England that local officials in various parts of the continent attempted to limit the import of English vintages. So much new land was cleared or reclaimed by pumping out marshes, especially along the coast, that it would be five hundred years before Europe matched the extent of land under cultivation. As food became abundant, the population of Europe soared from about 25 million in 950 to about 75 million in 1250. Given that the medieval economy rested primarily on agriculture, this was an era of considerable prosperity. Studies of coinage offer one window into this prosperity. Another comes from the nearly two centuries during which wealthy Europeans funded the Crusades and subsidized the crusader kingdoms. But the most obvious manifestations of abundance are the great Gothic cathedrals constructed during this period: Notre Dame (1163), Canterbury (1175), Strasbourg (1190), Chartres (1194), Reims (1212), Amiens (1225), and dozens more. As the archaeologist Brian Fagan concluded, “Like the Norse conquests, cathedrals too were a consequence of a global climatic phenomenon, an enduring legacy of the Medieval Warm Period.”
And then it ended—brutally.
The Little Ice Age
During the winter of 1310–11 Londoners danced around fires on the frozen Thames River—something that had never happened before. Then, starting in the early spring of 1315, rain poured down for weeks and weeks, making it impossible to farm. All across western Europe dikes were destroyed by floods, and new lakes and marshes appeared. In August the weather turned bitterly cold. Hunger began to spread. The next spring, heavy rains again prevented planting, and so again there was no harvest, nor was there fodder for the flocks. Famine became widespread. Meanwhile, intense gales battered the coastal areas. By 1317 all of northern Europe was starving—even the nobility.
Although the weather returned to normal that summer, the misery continued, because people had been so weakened, so much of the seed stock had been eaten, and even the horses and oxen used for plowing had been consumed. By the time the famine ended in 1325, perhaps 10 percent of the population had died of starvation and starvation-related diseases. Even then, although the famine was over, agricultural production continued to decline because of bad weather. Grain yields can be measured in terms of the ratio of seeds of grain harvested to seeds planted. In about 1200 the ratio for wheat was 5 to 1; by 1330 it had fallen to about 1.5 to 1. Barley fell from 10 to 1 to about 3 to 1 during the same period. Rye fell from about 4 to 1 to less than 2 to 1. It barely paid to farm until new, more productive varieties, better suited to shorter growing seasons, were developed. (By the sixteenth century the ratio for these three grains had risen to 7 to 1.)
With colder weather came more severe storms. The worst were enormous gales that drove tidal waves onto the western Atlantic shores, drowning tens of thousands. In 1282 storm-driven waves broke through the barrier coastal dunes of Holland, creating an inland sea extending about sixty miles from the coast and about thirty miles wide. Known as the Zuiderzee, it continued to expand during new storms. In 1287 a new immersion drowned an estimated fifty to eighty thousand Dutch; a flood in 1421 destroyed seventy-two villages and drowned another ten thousand.
Meanwhile, far fewer boats were reaching Iceland from Norway and Denmark, and no boats were going to or from Greenland—the last Viking boat visited Greenland in 1406, and then only because it had been blown off course. Since Greenland had no forests, the Greenland Vikings could not build boats or even repair them. Unable to leave, and unable to grow grain in the deteriorating climate, the Greenland Viking population was wiped out by the end of the fifteenth century.
Still another catastrophe arrived in October 1347, when a galley from Cairo docked in the Sicilian port of Messina. On board were a number of rats, all of them with fleas. The Black Death had come to Europe.
The Black Death
The Black Death was the bubonic plague (Yersinia pestis). (Although this identification was long disputed, recent analysis of human skeletons settled the debate.) Bubonic plague is carried by fleas that are borne by rats; humans become infected when they are bitten by a flea with the disease. There has been a long controversy over whether the plague can be directly transmitted from one human to another or whether the disease always requires a flea bite. The consensus is that direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person possibly can transmit the disease to another person, but almost always a flea bite is involved. Symptoms appear within several days of becoming infected, and most victims die after two or three days of intense pain and vomiting.
Of course, humanity had suffered many devastating plagues before. From 165 to 180 a plague had raged across the Roman Empire, with the famous emperor Marcus Aurelius among the victims. In 541–42 the plague of Justinian began somewhere near Constantinople and spread worldwide.
But the Black Death was far more deadly than these. It seems to have originated in China, perhaps in 1346. From there it traveled west, reaching the Middle East and North Africa in 1347. Europeans could do nothing to prevent the Black Death from reaching them. Merchant ships brought cargoes of infected rats and dying crews not only to Messina but to most, if not all, of the other Mediterranean ports. And Europe had an enormous rat population ready to become hosts for infected fleas.
The plague raged across Europe for four years, 1348–51, beginning in the south and moving north. Although the mortality rate may have varied from one region to another, everywhere huge numbers died. In 1351 Pope Clement VI asked his staff to calculate the number killed by the plague in Europe. They arrived at a figure of 23,840,000, or about 30 percent of the total population. Apparently, this total was based on actual reports and was not influenced by the fact that Revelation 9:18 predicts that “a third of mankind” will be killed by plague. Many modern scholars accept the 30 percent estimate, although some have supported estimates as high as 60 percent. The latter is quite credible if one adds in the next outbursts of plague that took place in 1361 and 1369. The same range of rates is proposed for the world as a whole, yielding estimates that at least 100 million and perhaps as many as 200 million perished. Since even the lowest estimates are staggeringly high, there seems little point in quibbling as to which figure is best.
The horror of what took place is difficult to imagine. The great Italian philosopher and literary intellectual Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374) wrote to a friend of “empty houses, derelict cities, ruined estates, fields strewn with cadavers, a horrible and vast solitude encompassing the whole world.” Parish registers from the Burgundian village of Givry show a population of about 1,200 in 1340, with deaths averaging about 30 a year; then, in a fourteen-week period in 1348, 615 deaths were recorded. There wasn’t room in the graveyard for such a number, and soon bodies were being pushed into trenches, layer upon layer.
Contemporary accounts from across Europe report the dedication of nuns and monks in caring for the afflicted and seeing to their burial, but there was no keeping up. Everywhere there were piles of putrefying corpses and many houses and cottages in which everyone lay dead. An agonized Italian father wrote about conditions in the city of Siena:
And none could be found to bury the dead for money or friendship. Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could. … And in many places in Siena great pits were dug and piled deep with the multitude of dead. … And I … buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city.
Nowhere was there any safety, not even in remote villages. Not even in Iceland, where the fatality rate may have been as high as 60 percent.
The End of Serfdom
Before the Black Death struck, serfs did most of the farming in Europe. A serf was a peasant to whom a landowner provided a parcel, as well as housing, in return for labor in the landowner’s fields. Serfs had a hereditary right to their land; in return they were bound to their land and their landlord—that is, they couldn’t be dispossessed, but they couldn’t leave. In addition to providing serfs with land, the seigneurs (as landowners were called in England as well as on the Continent) provided them with protection.
Not all medieval peasants were serfs. Many freely rented their land without any additional obligations to a landlord. The Domesday Book showed that at the end of the eleventh century, 12 percent of the population of England consisted of free peasants, while 35 percent were serfs. The proportion of free peasants to serfs began to increase by the start of the fourteenth century, and the immense loss of life caused by the Black Death so accelerated this trend that serfdom soon disappeared in western Europe.
A direct result of the Black Death was an immense amount of agricultural land having no surviving owners or heirs. Consequently, surviving landowners greatly expanded their holdings. As their fields doubled and tripled in size, they faced an immediate crisis: a serious shortage of labor. So landowners began to compete for labor, with the result that both wages and conditions of employment improved. In England, for example, a plowman’s average wage rose from 2 shillings a week in 1347 to 7 shillings in 1349 and to 10 shillings, 6 pence, in 1350. Similar increases occurred everywhere. Perhaps even more important, conditions of tenancy changed dramatically too. Unless freed from the rules binding them to the land, serfs simply deserted and signed on as free tenants elsewhere—to which their new landlords turned blind eyes. To keep their tenants, landlords had to emancipate them from serfdom. Moreover, new lease agreements increasingly favored the peasant farmer: landlords agreed to furnish seed, oxen or horse teams, and better housing, all for lower rents. Lack of tenants also prompted many landowners to abandon farming in favor of the far-less-labor-intensive grazing of livestock—especially sheep and cattle. This development, combined with the greater affluence of the laboring classes, increased the consumption of meat; the increase in protein intake was quickly reflected in growth and strength.
Rapidly growing opportunities in expanding industries and other forms of urban employment also improved the situation of the peasantry. In fact, the real wages of urban construction workers were as high in the mid-fifteenth century as at the end of the nineteenth century. In England in the late fourteenth century, the rapidly growing industry of woolen manufacturing offered wages that attracted many workers away from rural employment, thereby putting increased upward pressure on wages. It should be noted that the demand for woolen garments grew partly in response to the increasingly colder climate.
As a result of the financial and legal gains made by medieval workers, the financial circumstances of the elite declined substantially. With many fewer mouths to feed, prices for agricultural products declined, which reduced landowners’ incomes. As the distinguished A. R. Bridbury put it, “Members of the landed classes … were outstandingly the casualties of the movements of these momentous times.” Consequently, all across western Europe the aristocratic landowners attempted to prohibit higher wages by law. In France a 1349 statute limited wages to pre-1348 levels. It was ignored. So in 1350 a new statute limited wage increases to 33 percent above the 1348 level. In England, an Ordinance of Labour in 1349 froze wages. Then in 1350 Parliament enacted a statute that attempted the same thing. But the market overruled them. “All of these efforts were for naught,” the historian Robert S. Gottfried wrote, “and landlords discovered that the only way to keep laborers was to pay the going rate.”
Nevertheless, tensions between the peasants, who demanded greater freedom, and the aristocracy, who wanted a return to unchallenged serfdom, led to several peasant revolts—the Jacquerie in France in 1358, the Revolt of the Ciompi in Italy in 1378, and the English Peasants’ Revolt (or Wat Tyler’s Rebellion) in 1381. All these revolts were ruthlessly suppressed. But their goals were largely achieved by economic forces. As the historian Jim Bolton aptly put it: “Change came, almost inexorably, and it did so because the economic events of the last quarter of the fourteenth century, and especially those resulting from the sudden decline in population, gave peasant tenants an irresistible bargaining position. By the late 1380s, [aristocratic efforts to restore serfdom] had largely failed, in the face of tenant resistance and economic realism.”